May 4, 2020

Student learning enhanced by experiencing the land

Werklund School of Education’s land-based learning initiative teaches students about Indigenous knowledge systems
land-based learning initiative
Werklund School works with Indigenous Elders to offer land-based learning experiences to students.

Some students are nervous — this is their first time experiencing outdoor living. They may have never talked with Elders, hiked to different rock art formations or connected with the spiritual energy of the land. What are they doing? These students are participating in the Werklund School of Education’s land-based learning initiative.

“The course content comes from the land,” says Jennifer MacDonald, PhD candidate, Werklund School of Education and Indigenous Education Instruction Team.

If a crow flies by or we see a snake, that determines what stories might be told by the Elders.

Every year the Werklund School of Education offers optional land-based experiences to Bachelor of Education students in Indigenous Education. This can include a three-day trip to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a site of great importance to the Blackfoot people. Accompanied by instructors and guided by Kainai Elder Saa’kokoto (Randy Bottle), students hike, visit sacred sites, and learn about Indigenous and land-based education, giving them the opportunity to experience Indigenous knowledge systems and imagine a sustainable shared future together.

This unique co-curricular opportunity, now in its fourth year, won the 2020 Experiential Learning Project in Sustainability Award thanks to the collaborative efforts of instructors, leadership and administrative staff at the Werklund School of Education

“It’s really nice to have this recognized,” says Aubrey Hanson, faculty member, Werklund School of Education in Indigenous Education. “When students participate in these initiatives, they come away saying things like ‘I know now what it’s like to have a relationship with a place and I’m going to take that back and think about how I experience place differently.’ It’s pretty cool for them to get there from a three-day experience.”

The land as a teacher

Land-based experiential learning initiatives allow students to understand the power of the land, and the different relationships that exist with it.  

“It comes down to making the connection for students that treaty history, reconciliation, Indigenous knowledges and people — all of these happen on the land and in relation to the land and we can understand them through the land,” says Hanson. “It’s reframing that it’s not just nature and the environment. Places have something to teach us and Indigenous knowledge systems give us a framework for understanding all these things.” 

Creating connection

Instructors who lead land-based learning opportunities like this one are amazed at the changes they see in their students over three days. The struggles they face while living on the land offer new perspectives not obtained in the classroom.

“When you’re on the land, you’re going to have to struggle through things differently than when you’re at home. It gives you a deeper understanding of, or relationship to, all the things that land encompasses,” says MacDonald. “It might bring to light things that you take for granted at home. Experiential learning is important because it offers opportunities to learn in ways that aren’t just regurgitating, reading or memory recall. It becomes more heartfelt because students make a connection with it.”

Interested in participating in this land-based learning initiative? Depending on when UCalgary resumes in-person activities, the next group of students may take part in a Writing-On-Stone trip in September 2020.

Werklund School of Education’s land-based learning initiative supports United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals 3, 4, 10, 12 and 15.

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to become a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.